Do you need a guide book to walk the camino? Short answer: No. You don’t actually need one. But you might want one, even if you leave it at home when the time comes to pack up your camino kit and leave.
Here are some of mine:
Guidebooks are great for planning. You can read the cultural and historical info in them, check out the accommodation in the different places you’ll be going through, plan your daily walks depending on where you want to end up every evening*, make notes in the margins on places where you want to eat.
*It probably won’t end up like that but hey, planning is half the fun! (Going with the flow when you get there is the other half.)
So what guidebook do you need? Easy, one that is thorough, up to date, a good read, has clear maps, space for notes, fits in your strategically placed pocket and weighs nothing. In short: It doesn’t exist. Every guidebook is a compromise between the above and you have to decide what you need the most. Also be aware that a lot of other people will have the same guide and stop at the same village or town as you, so don’t slavishly follow the stages set out by any guide book. They have to break up the map every so often, but you get to choose where and when (and why) you stop for the day.
The classic in English is the Brierley guide, simplistic maps to be read from the bottom up with elevation, path condition, accommodation and alternative route info. (Also some spiritual daily messages you might or might not enjoy.) They now have some smaller maps-only guides printed on lightweight paper. Have a look here for their range.
Cicerone guides are also popular, if a bit heavy, but smaller than the full fat Brierley. It has lots of info and stage plans, everything you might need. Have a look at the maps, photos and content info on their website here.
A relatively new guidebook which has been getting good reviews – though I have never seen one myself – is the Hiking the Camino, which is also going for comprehensive but heavy village by village info. Sample chapter available on their website here.
The German publisher Rother has an increasingly popular guide in English. They are more compact but otherwise it’s much the same: history, landmarks, elevation, accommodation. It is smaller than the three above though. Link to the guide here.
Another popular and lightweight choice is the Michelin guide, which is more like a booklet than a guidebook. Again the maps are simple and easy to follow, there is info on accommodation and some city maps, but that’s it. Link to it here.
If that leaves you wanting more info, the Gitlitz and Davidson The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook could be just what you need. Don’t be fooled by the misnomer ‘handbook’ though, it is far too big and heavy to carry on the camino, but a great choice for planning what you want to see and make sure you don’t miss anything. Also it is now available as an e-book! Link to paper version here.
While you are on the CSJ – Confraternity of St James – page, you can look at their own regularly updated guide. They have a no-nonsense layout with info on accommodation and route description and are in an A5 format, and like the Brierley they offer guides for most of the different caminos. Link here.
My current favourite, though not regularly updated, is the small black book at the front of the photo above, a mix of drawn maps and notebook (four pages of ruled paper between each stage map) with a small booklet of accommodation info at the back. I keep adding notes on and between caminos, updating it myself. They have one for the Norte and one for the Portuguese too, plus other versions and sizes. Link to the publisher here.
And then there is of course the one sheet with elevations that you get from pilgrim offices along the way. That’ll do too, or just following the yellow arrows and other pilgrims!
For the sake of simplicity I have linked to a recent Camino Francés guide where possible, there might be guides for other routes from the same publisher. Let me know if you have a different favourite and I will put it on here!